Relying on the formality of empire and regency styles,
a designer makes small rooms
feel like grand salons at a Connecticut country home
By Jorge S. Arango
Photography by William Stites
Napoleon may have been a man of small stature, but certainly not small ambition. So he was hardly thrilled to discover, upon returning from military exploits in Egypt in 1799, that his wife, JosÃ©phine, had purchased a run-down country chÃ¢teau outside Paris called Malmaison. (He was even less pleased to learn she’d had an affair while he was away.)
By the standards of the day, Malmaison’s underwhelming scale and small rooms did not befit an Emperor-in-the-making. So, the couple retained the fashionable architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine—who would later renovate the Louvre, the Tuileries, the ChÃ¢teau de Versailles, and other palaces and estates—and instructed them to give it a more regal bearing.
Using acres of silk drapery, classical decorative devices like faux-bronze balustrades and medallion friezes, grand furnishings by Jacob-Desmalter, and enough gilt to fill Fort Knox, the architects made the cozy rooms feel imperial. If it weren’t for Percier and Fontaine, we might never have had French Empire style.
About his visit to Malmaison over 200 years later, the Manhattan- and Redding, CT-based designer Kenneth Hockin recalls, “I was struck by the intimacy of the place. After all, these were not large rooms. It showed me you could do grand things on a small scale.” It’s precisely that epiphany that he drew on to decorate this weekend retreat in Wilton, CT.
The rooms of this home, a center-hall Colonial built in the 1940s, had lovely detailing and a pleasant floor plan, but their proportions were modest. The client, a high-powered female Wall Street executive with a sophisticated sense of personal style, wanted its public rooms to look refined. There were more casual areas—a pool house, a family room, a gym—but the dining room, living room, and library were to be another matter.
It helped that Hockin already knew the woman. She was the daughter of someone he had worked with at Lord & Taylor in the 1980s. Hockin had become the home-furnishings coordinator there after attending the International Institute of Interior Design (now the interior design department of the University of Maryland’s Marymount College), and it was at Lord & Taylor that he gained the confidence to start his own firm. (“I met people like Mario Buatta and John Saladino there when they would introduce their product lines, and I was inspired,” he says.)
Hockin had already decorated his client’s mother’s home and his client’s first New York apartment, which had a much more casual environment. Now the client, who had become quite successful, wanted something more stylish. So Hockin gave her a book on period style and asked her to place Post-Its on what she liked. As luck would have it, she leaned toward the neoclassical looks of French Empire and English regency.
So Hockin set about pumping up the profile of the common rooms with lessons he’d learned at Malmaison. In the dining room, for instance, he balanced the less-than-impressive size with a dramatic scenic wallpaper from Zuber called “Hindustan,” which had been reproduced from antique woodblocks. “It was very much in vogue in the 19th century,” explains Hockin. “It was an expensive paper, but it was also cost-effective because you didn’t have to buy art for the walls.”
Moreover, he adds, “We had little opportunity to put large pieces of furniture against the wall because of the room’s size. This provided grandeur and ornamentation on an intimate scale.”
He surrounded the circular dining table, a reproduction of an English George III design, with authentic 19th-century Regency chairs adorned with a gilded Greek-key pattern. The chandelier he chose was inspired by the bottom portion of a much grander fixture, suggesting restrained pomp rather than tipping the room into a glitziness that would have destroyed its classical sense of proportion.
Hockin unified the dining and living rooms with a Stark carpet reminiscent of a 19th-century needlepoint rug (its medallion pattern fitting nicely into the neoclassical style) and with silk-taffeta balloon shades on all the windows.
The pattern mixing in the living room is on a par with the work of Hockin’s early role models, Buatta and Saladino. The striped curtains live in perfect harmony with the medallion carpet, a damask-covered sofa, two chintz-covered armchairs and two Empire-inspired side chairs upholstered in a cinnabar-colored silk crisscrossed with gold lattice.
“I like mixing lots of patterns,” he admits. “The key to it is that you don’t want any one of them to dominate.”
The bedrooms have a period look but are executed in muted shades and less regal patterns, creating a warmer, more serene atmosphere. The evolution of the master suite began with a choice that would seem, on the surface, odd: a geometric carpet from Schumacher originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Even though it was from a completely different period and century, says Hockin, “I loved the turquoise blue color. We were going to have a lot of showy woods on the furniture,” he continues, “so we wanted a quieter background so they could stand out. The woods were also warm, so it was better to layer them against a cool color.”
The wallpaper, a typically 19th-century pattern of floral baskets, wreaths, and swags, kept things light. Hockin had portions of the design copied onto the mahogany bed’s canopy cornice, a whimsical detail that minimized its massive volume. All of this provides a delicate, soothing backdrop for some gorgeous antiques: an English 19th-century satinwood linen press topped by ebony urn finials, a pair of bow-front satinwood chests, and a luxuriously enveloping tufted wing chair with an ottoman upholstered in fabric to match the bedskirt and valances. The lamps echo the urn shapes of the linen press’s finials, emphasizing the classical motif.
In the more comfortable surroundings of the bedrooms, though, Hockin infuses the spaces with elegance. In the end, they turn out to be not unlike Malmaison in the 1800s—modestly sized with some very grand ambitions.
Jorge Arango is a design writer and editor living in Mohegan Lake and New York City. He is also co-author, with the designer Roderick N. Shade, of Harlem Style: Designing for the New Urban Aesthtetic (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002).